Hillary's Ex Factor

By David Ignatius
Sunday, December 9, 2007

The clearest account of what Bill Clinton would do in a future Democratic administration comes from Barack Obama, who told Time magazine that he would "in a second" offer the former president a job in an Obama administration. "There are few more talented people," he explained.

A fuzzier version of Bill Clinton's future role comes from his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton. She said in April that if elected, she would make him a kind of roving ambassador. "I can't think of a better cheerleader for America than Bill Clinton, can you?" The former president, with the same gee-whiz tone, promised that if Madame President "asks me to do something, whatever it was, I would probably do it."

Hillary Clinton is still the Democratic front-runner in national polls. But the aura of inevitability that surrounded her nomination a few months ago has begun to slip. That's because Obama is doing better in Iowa and New Hampshire, but it may also be because voters are grappling with the unusual questions that would surround her presidency. And the most important of these is the "two presidents" problem. Whatever you think of the Clintons, it's hard to get your mind around having a current and former president in the White House.

The Clinton campaign's approach has been mostly to ignore the issue -- and to suggest subtly that it's unfair or sexist if people raise it. For months, that seemed to work: Hillary proved to be a very good candidate, better than many expected, and she established a strong, independent voice. She has dominated most of the debates, and she promises something the country needs, which is an ability to govern from the center and put performance first.

But there's still a nagging uneasiness about having these two complicated Clintons back together at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It's the elephant in the room -- or in this case, the West Wing. And it's time for Hillary Clinton to address this issue directly. It's like Mitt Romney's Mormonism. The Romney campaign hoped this concern would just go away. But it didn't, and the candidate finally addressed it directly in a speech Thursday in Texas.

Hillary Clinton needs to discuss honestly what it would be like to share the White House with the former president. Rather than ducking the issue, she should lead the discussion of her husband's appropriate role -- one that recognizes the benefits of his experience and also the limits on his activities.

First, consider the upside of the two President Clintons: Listening to Bill at conferences over the past seven years, I have often been struck by how much he understands about governing effectively. He sees the mistakes he made as president, and he has good advice about how to avoid similar goofs. From the Middle East to economic policy, I can imagine Bill Clinton being a unique source of wise counsel.

A second benefit is what might be called the "Bobby Kennedy factor." President John F. Kennedy's creative solution of the Cuban missile crisis depended on his ability to think boldly, in private, with his brother. JFK was able to explore with this intimate adviser a deal that would avert nuclear war without worrying that he would look weak in front of his Cabinet.

The downside of the two Clintons is more complicated. What worries me most is that Bill Clinton's political history is unfinished and that, as First Laddie, he would have an opportunity to add another (unelected) chapter -- by shaping his wife's presidency in a way that burnishes his own legacy. Then there are his extensive foreign contacts -- a potential benefit but also a danger. What person on Bill's global Rolodex wouldn't think he had a special "in" at the White House?

The Clintons this time around have avoided the "Buy one, get one free" talk that led people to imagine a co-presidency in 1993. But as Sally Bedell Smith makes clear in her comprehensive look at their relationship, "For Love of Politics," these two are a political team, peculiarly but indissolubly bound together. Even after Hillary publicly disavowed a policy role after the collapse of her health-care plan and the disastrous 1994 congressional elections, she continued to be intensively active behind the scenes -- lobbying her husband, vetting appointments and giving advice. There's no reason to imagine that Bill would be any different.

The "two presidents" issue isn't a disqualifier, in my view. But it does need to be talked about. It matters to the country, and it's not going to go away.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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